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Economy & Society, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Literary Nonprofits Must Look at Appeal Strategies

’Tis the season, as they say, for giving. I know this because lately I’ve received many requests from small publishers and other literary organizations for end-of-year donations—three on Thursday alone, including one from my local arts org. They’re all worthy causes.

I want to help, truly. But it’s tough right now, what with gifts for family and friends, trips, the annual party my wife and I host for local writers, prepping for winter expenses, etc. I’m no nonprofit marketing expert, but I can’t help wondering if this might not be the best strategy for the literary orgs.

Don’t forget, many traditional nonprofit agencies also appeal to their donor bases this time of year. Is there room in the hearts and wallets of philanthropists, big and small, to make additional donations right now? It may be tough for many people to justify an extra donation or two when they’re asked to help the homeless, the hungry and others. As much as I believe in the literary/arts cause, it’s a difficult sell compared to those needs.

One publisher I know, Dzanc Books out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, takes a different approach. They have a variety of fundraising options throughout the year, many of which offer something in return for donations, such as personal story critiques from established writers, workshops, and more. They sponsor an annual event to raise money for kids’ reading programs in April, which happens to fall right about the time many people have just received their tax refunds. Hmm.

Related to all this is recent talk in Washington about raising revenues by cutting tax deductions. One idea that is gaining bi-partisan support would cap deductions at income-based levels, no matter what the deductions are. As David Brooks of The New York Times, and others have pointed out, this would push filers to take non-discretionary deductions like home mortgage, state and local taxes, and interest payments to reach the cap, instead of donations, and could have a catastrophic effect on charitable giving in the US.

I think nonprofits in general, and literary organizations in particular, would do well to take hard looks at their futures, and craft strategies that address timing, consistency and political issues. It could mean the difference between continued existence and failure for many.

Controversial Book Review Update:

A thumbs up from my co-editors and the publisher at LA Review. I’ll post the essay with our December book reviews and provide a link here.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


27 thoughts on “Literary Nonprofits Must Look at Appeal Strategies

  1. Interesting quandary, huh. While we all can’t save the world, we can just do what we can—and at whatever level, family, local, regional, etc. But helping the world doesn’t involve just money. It also involves our thoughts and actions. Contribute in any way you can, but don’t feel necessarily pressured into JUST forking over the hard-earned green….

    Posted by fpdorchak | November 17, 2012, 2:27 PM
    • That’s especially true for writers. It’s what my MFA program called “Literary Citizenship,” things like holding readings, introducing kids to literature, conducting workshops and more. Thanks, Frank.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:32 PM
  2. This is always a tough one.
    I’m fortunate not to have to choose between donations and groceries, but I do have to decide among sad eyed puppies/seals/sea turtles, big eyed South American children and needy eyed homeless people. And yes, bleary eyed writers. What to do? Spread the charitable budget across that spectrum or concentrate on one or two? All those eyes. No sooner do I think I have it figured out than some 1974 Emmy nominee shows up on TV pleading for help to fight one or another illness.
    What it’s come down to is that I help dogs over whales (I have some dogs). I help cancer research over other illnesses (I’ve had some cancer). And I’ll help those literary organizations that I think help writers (I’ve had loads of help). Period. This year that’s it. But that poor Guatamalan kid could really use clean drinking water…and she’s looking right at me.

    Posted by Jon Zech | November 17, 2012, 2:47 PM
    • A great comment, Jon, and it brings up another point about giving, which is looking at the business practices of nonprofits. For example, I don’t give to those that use telemarketers– partly because I hate the intrusion, but mostly because the telemarketing companies are often contracted and take a significant percentage of the donation for themselves.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:34 PM
  3. I did not know Dzanc Books offered critiques and workshops in return for donations and think it’s brilliant. As far as fundraisers during Christmas, I agree with your piece. Just ask anyone who’s birthday falls on or near Dec. 25. They don’t get as many gifts because people are tapped out.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | November 17, 2012, 3:02 PM
    • Unfortunately many small publishers and literary orgs are too small to spend much time creating year-long strategies to address their donation needs. I suspect some of them get to year end and decide to make a last-minute appeal. They’d do well to look at several of the strategies Dzanc uses. Or maybe, as Jeanne (below) suggests, work together to fundraise.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:39 PM
  4. I agree with Jon Zech; so many worthy causes, it’s hard to choose, but ultimately, one does choose. And yes, literary non-profits have to think of creative strategies to survive. These are tough economic times.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | November 17, 2012, 3:08 PM
    • Yes, as long as each person eventually chooses some cause to help. Makes me wonder what percentage of people who can afford to give actually do.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:39 PM
  5. As a family, we often talk about what causes we’d like to support. As the parent of small children, it seems that all my extra time and money goes towards supporting their education. I am amazed by how much private effort it takes to keep a public school going.

    Sorry. You said “party” and I got distracted. Did you say party for writers? I wish I could come.

    Posted by girl in the hat | November 17, 2012, 7:34 PM
    • Yes, education is an often overlooked need, because most people think the government (local, state, nantional) provides everything they need. I know several teachers, and I know how untrue that is.

      As for the party, every writer who reads this is invited. If you can get to Michigan, of course.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:42 PM
      • You should probably be thankful Anna and I are not close enough to crash your party. I have a feeling the chemistry would get totally out of hand.

        Posted by Averil Dean | November 19, 2012, 1:59 AM
      • It would be interesting to see how you guys meshed with some of my sci fi and horror writer friends, not to mention the woman who writes man on man erotica.

        Posted by jpon | November 19, 2012, 3:29 AM
  6. People give to causes that have touched them in some way. Whether that’s giving to the ASPCA for dog lovers or your favorite literary organization at year’s end. At holiday time, the adults in my family give to nonprofits instead of buying gifts for each other. It’s a joy to choose a worthy organization to receive donations from my family members. Some years it has been a literary organization like 826 Michigan, in other years the Nature Conservancy or a human service organization and, when it was still publishing, Orchid: A Literary Review. Often it is the year-end letter or email I receive from nonprofits that builds my holiday wish list.

    Nonprofits, even those focused on literary pursuits, have to go out about the frequently difficult business of fundraising if they are to survive. Year-end appeals are one way to raise funds, and these appeals do work for some donors. Most nonprofits also hold events, submit grants, and some run programs for which they charge a fee to help cover their costs. This variety allows them to reach donors who love a good party as well as those who prefer to give from the privacy of their computer.

    What’s important isn’t when the appeal reaches us or what time of year we choose to give, but that we realize that the nonprofits important to us, especially literary projects that get by on a shoestring, won’t be around long without our support. With the fiscal cliff looming, federal funding for the arts is far from secure. So why not give the gift of a literary nonprofit this holiday season!

    Posted by LCEaton | November 17, 2012, 9:36 PM
    • I love the idea of giving to nonprofits instead of exchanging holiday gifts. And you’ve got me thinking about using my annual writers party to raise a few dollars for a worthy literary operation. Thanks, Lori.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:46 PM
  7. There are literary non-profits whose strategy for raising funds is to charge writers for each piece submitted to them. I admit to having an ambivalent attitude toward this, but it is a way to support the arts.

    Posted by Veronica Dale | November 18, 2012, 1:58 AM
    • In fact, the journal where I’m an editor, LA Review, recently began to require a small submission fee. It was necessary to meet growing print and distribution costs. A tip to writers: all those fees, and pretty much anything else you spend to conduct your writing career (whether you’ve been published or not), are deductible as business expenses.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:48 PM
      • Thanks for this tip. I didn’t realize this. Can you deduct them even if you’re making little money?

        Posted by nadiaibrashi | November 18, 2012, 7:16 PM
      • You can deduct them even if you’re making no money, as long as you show that you are working towards making writing your source of income. Poets & Writers had an article a few months back by a woman who had never published. Her husband deducted the cost of her MFA program from their taxes. The IRS audited them, and determined that it was a legitimate deduction, even though she had never published a single story. I’m not saying they will make the same determination in future cases, but at least there is a precedent.

        Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 10:56 PM
  8. party? what party?
    yes, I too got distracted.
    Yup — end of the year is a bad time to ask for money. spring is better.
    thanks again for another astute commentary!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | November 18, 2012, 4:59 AM
    • It’s quite the event. I love to listen to the conversations among writers. So different from the usual party chatter.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:49 PM
  9. Maybe the literary journals need to come together and do a short fiction week like they do in the UK, or hell, short fiction month because we always go big. They could celebrate the art form they support and make that their big fundraising push.

    Posted by jetepper | November 18, 2012, 12:43 PM
    • A great idea. Some places may do this, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Considering it’s writers, it may be like herding cats, though.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:50 PM
  10. I’m reposting this comment, which was entered on LinkedIn:

    Kathy Milberg (Nonprofit Specialist) wrote:

    “Great point, Joe! The smaller nonprofits should especially take note of your post given the high cost of printing/mailing. In my experience, sending out a jam-packed full of activities report/newsletter in the off season followed by a request sent within a week has had a higher rate of return. just a thought… Many folks I know have select charities they support, and they wait for campaigns that have matching/double/triple dollar partnerships.”

    Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:28 PM
    • I worked with Kathy on a contract job for a few months. She knows what’s she’s talking about. A little strategy goes a long way.

      Posted by jpon | November 18, 2012, 2:51 PM
  11. Another great idea in the set of notions about how we can all pull together in tough times.

    Posted by shadowoperator | November 18, 2012, 8:39 PM

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